Environmental Impact of EVs vs. Gas Cars

Sebastian Blanco | Sep 27, 2022

Researchers have conducted many studies on the environmental impact of electric vehicles (EVs). The results of these studies consistently show that EVs provide emissions benefits in nearly every circumstance compared with vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE). This article will explain how EVs impact the environment, why they produce lower emissions than gas vehicles, and provide links to the data cited. You can rest assured that EVs are cleaner than traditional gas-powered vehicles.

Environmental Impact of EVs vs. Gas Cars

EVs are Cleaner

The International Council On Clean Transportation released a study in 2021 that found that electric vehicles "have by far the lowest lifecycle GHG emissions" compared to other powertrains, including plug-in hybrids and hydrogen. (GHG stands for greenhouse gas.) We have known this since at least 2012, when researchers conducted a study for the California Air Resources Board that found EVs had the "least overall impact" on the environment when considering total lifecycle energy usage.

There are many reasons EVs have a lower impact on the environment than gas cars. One of the most important factors is that an electric motor is more efficient than an ICE. An electric motor can turn about 90 percent of its energy into power at the wheels. In contrast, gas engines in passenger vehicles are typically only 35-40% efficient.

Another important factor is that it is possible to produce electricity from zero-emission sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. In contrast, burning petroleum-based fuel without creating emissions is impossible.

The Long Tailpipe Argument

Not all electricity comes from renewable energy. For example, in West Virginia, the majority of the state's electricity is generated by burning coal. It is crucial to consider the emissions of the electricity source when trying to understand the environmental impact of an EV. In the United States, that can vary dramatically by state.

Nevertheless, researchers have determined that the carbon footprint of an EV is typically smaller than a gasoline car, even when accounting for the source of the electricity used for charging. In fact, the EPA says the number one myth about EVs is the falsehood that electric vehicles are worse for the climate than gasoline cars because of the power plant emissions.

How utilities generate the electricity used in an electric car changes how much more efficient an EV is when compared to a gas vehicle. Based on the U.S. national average, data from the Argonne National Laboratory shows that you would have to drive a Tesla Model 3 only 13,500 miles to resolve any added harm to the environment caused by the EV's construction and operation when compared to a Toyota Corolla driven the same distance.

Argonne adds that if the electricity is from a renewable source like hydropower, it takes just 8,400 miles of travel in the Model 3 to match and surpass the Corolla. If the electricity comes solely from coal-fired plants, it takes much longer at 78,700 miles, but ultimately, the Tesla reaches ecological parity and surpasses the Toyota.

Regardless of the source of the electricity, the data demonstrate that EVs are ultimately better for the environment than gas-powered cars.

Rare Earth Minerals

The auto industry has existed for over a century and has well-established and understood supply chains. Building an EV requires different materials than an ICE vehicle, such as minerals like lithium and cobalt. Electric vehicles also use much more copper than traditional cars. Mining companies are already building mines to collect these minerals for the EV industry.

Some of these projects are approaching mining in a new manner. For example, the Snow Lake Lithium mine in Canada plans to produce traceable carbon-neutral lithium that operates in a zero-emission facility. Polestar is working on a concept car called Project 0 that previews a truly climate-neutral production car the automaker wants to sell by 2030.

Automakers are also addressing concerns about child labor in mines. In 2019, Volkswagen, Ford, and other automakers joined the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network (RSBN). The RSBN works to ensure the "ethical production of a raw material" throughout the supply chain, including supporting human rights and environmental protection. Some automakers also work directly with mines to ensure safer working conditions, along with other reasons.

When mining companies extract minerals in a traditional manner, EV production can be more harmful to the environment than ICE vehicle production. In the long run, EVs are more environmentally friendly when considering the emissions produced during the complete lifecycle of the vehicle. And improved, sustainable mining solutions will only make EVs more advantageous.

Summary

Just like gas-powered cars, electric vehicles harm the environment. However, researchers have repeatedly shown that EVs have a much lower environmental impact when considering the vehicle's entire lifecycle.

Check out our Shopping Guides section if you'd like to learn more about EVs.

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